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Lorraine Copes: "In mainstream hospitality there was never anyone who looked like me"

Formerly a leading procurement executive leader in the food and drink industries, Lorraine Copes pivoted her career path in 2020 to launch Be Inclusive Hospitality, an initiative that aims to tackle diversity issues within the hospitality industry

For Lorraine Copes, a career in hospitality was born from a desire to weave her love for eating and drinking into her day-to-day job. “When I realised I could do something that wasn't being a chef and still eat and drink for free, that was a big pull,” she laughs.

Copes is now at the helm of Be Inclusive Hospitality, an initiative that aims to do exactly what it says on the tin: supporting people of colour to excel through professional development and wellbeing initiatives, while also working with hospitality companies, helping them to become more inclusive through research, insights, education and consultancy.

Copes’ career path stretches far beyond Be Inclusive Hospitality’s founding. Leaving university with a degree in logistics, she worked at a pub management company, before joining a contract caterer that led her down the pathway to buying and procurement. From there she joined a French company before moving to TGI Friday, Shake Shack, and the Gordon Ramsay group, progressing up the ladder until she reached director level. “Procurement is probably the best – or worst – kept secret in hospitality in terms of jobs that I know many people would love and enjoy,” Copes says. “It’s rewarding, it’s really enjoyable and it can be well paid, and I never find a time in my life where I’m at a networking event or an industry event and people don't understand what I do.”

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While many would look at Copes and see someone who has broken through the glass ceiling, that’s not to say the experience was easy for her, as a woman, and specifically a woman of colour – or that the job is yet done. “Operating within what I’d call the mainstream hospitality industry and being in these rooms, there was never anyone who looked like me – and they were mostly decision-makers,” she tells me. “They were extremely white. And being in London, where almost 50% of the population are not white, it was a bit confusing initially.

“The sad thing about being in environments consistently for 20 years is that you almost normalise it,” she continues. “And while moving up within my career path I’ve never seen barriers, because if I don’t get a solution in one place I’ll find it in another, I have been in a position where someone’s been given a job over myself who is less qualified and less able.” She talks about being in boardrooms where senior members of the team can’t make eye contact with her, or situations that are predominantly male where she will say something and it won’t be heard, but if a male counterpart says it the entire room will listen up.

The issue doesn’t simply sit within representation in particular organisations, but within the city – even the country – as a whole. “Some of my previous bosses or colleagues have never interacted with a Black person as a peer.” says Copes. “That’s the reality, and I think sometimes some people are under the illusion that because we live in London that it’s a multicultural melting pot. And it really isn’t. I say this as someone who lives in South London – I love Brixton, and I can go into places in Brixton where there’s all Black people and a couple of white people, and I can go into places where there’s all white people and a couple of Black people. To me, that is not a melting pot.”

While moving up in my career I've never seen barriers, because if I don't get a solution in one place I'll find it in another

As Copes began to grow frustrated with these problems never being addressed in her professional life, she began to look for people in the industry who were having that conversation and looking to enact change. Her search turned up nothing, because at that time nobody was doing it. “I felt disheartened on so many levels,” Copes says. “So it’s been a journey of being frustrated that things didn’t exist I wanted to see, and then setting up an Instagram myself. Initially it was just me posting profiles of people that I knew existed in the industry that were of colour, some really well known and some not.”

Over the lockdown period, with work grinding to a halt, Copes had more time on her hands and therefore the capacity to really look into what she wanted out of Be Inclusive Hospitality. “It gave me the opportunity to really get crystal clear about what it is that I wanted to solve and how I wanted to solve it. To write a business plan and really start to build the community. I arrived at a social enterprise that was multi pronged, because there is a real stark lack of representation of people of colour within decision making or influential roles within the hospitality sector. But second to that there isn’t a resource within the industry that keeps the marginalised communities at the centre and the core, and also looks to partner with organisations and help to educate them and provide them with resources so that they can do better.”

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That is exactly what Be Inclusive Hospitality became. They now have a community of more than 400 members who they support to succeed and progress within the industry, with people in roles that span everything from CEOs to sommeliers to kitchen porters. But things kicked up a notch in June 2020, when the murder of George Floyd and the explosion of cultural and political discourse around racial issues in society also prompted the Black Square by social media users. “That led to us being very visible very quickly,” Copes tells me. “Because within the hospitality sector people started to look around for what existed and there wasn’t anything apart from us.”

Fast forward to now and Be Inclusive Hospitality has delivered workshops for over 500 industry leaders, providing both education and cultural audits that, as Copes says, “help them to hold up the mirror to their organisation and themselves to better understand where they are and how they can create a plan to move forward.”

“We look at external facing comms, we also look at internal policy and procedure, we look at it holistically,” she continues. “There has been a huge focus on recruiting diverse talent, but unless you have a culture that is inclusive and where people feel as though they belong, you’ll recruit this talent and then they’ll leave.” It’s no small feat what Copes has done: to recognise a gap in the industry and actively work to fill it. She tells me about an event she hosted which aimed to spotlight Black women in the hospitality industry, and seems to best summarise what she has achieved. “It was my first event of its kind in the industry in 20 years that was centred around people of colour. It was my first event of that kind and I had to create it,” says Copes. “What that meant to a number of younger people who are coming up in the industry was just phenomenal.”

Find out more at bihospitality.co.uk

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